Revitalizing World Tour in Rock Band

It's no secret that I'm a die-hard Rock Band fan. Ever since Frequency came out nearly a decade ago, I've avidly followed Harmonix's rise from a small studio building relatively niche rhythm games into what is now the undisputed leader in high-quality music gaming. From the time Rock Band first arrived in 2007, I don't think a week has gone by where I haven't picked up a guitar or banged on the drums for at least a few minutes. It doesn't hurt that I've amassed a pretty substantial collection of songs, either.

But years have passed, achievements have been earned, and world tours have been demolished. With more than a year and a half having passed between Rock Band 2's release and now, it's highly unlikely that many players are still regularly hitting up the World Tour mode; instead, most people are probably opting for the pick-up-and-play simplicity of quickplay. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but what if World Tour could be reworked to be more robust, more engaging, and more enduring?

I've done my best to compile all my thoughts and suggestions into a relatively ordered list below. While it looks like we'll be getting some new insight directly from the Harmonix design team based on this short article Lead Designer Dan Teasdale posted today, I figured I'd post my own impressions of what the series' strengths and weaknesses are, and what can be done to specifically improve the World Tour experience in Rock Band 3.

Just bear in mind that this is only speculation from a guy who maybe loves his music games a little too much, and as a result it's best if it's not taken too seriously.

The Band World Tour mode is the heart of Rock Band. It embodies everything that the game stands for -- cooperative play, creating and developing a band identity, and living the rags-to-riches rockstar dream -- and it has been a staple in both Rock Band games. Most importantly, it has served to both foster a sense of unity among multiple players in a band and to solve the problem of bland, linear progression down a setlist that was previously the norm for instrument games.

However, there are several significant shortcomings with World Tour as it is currently designed:

1. It is more constrained than it initially appears to be -- While assembling and customizing a band of virtual rockstars is fun, the thrill of independent, nonlinear progression and accumulation of money and fans quickly tapers off when it becomes clear to the player just how artificial the rewards for those statistics are. Fans are simply the equivalent of experience points for unlocking new challenges, and money is just used to buy new accessories and gear for your band that don't affect the game in any tangible way. These are both valuable rewards to the player in that they allow for deeper involvement on a customization level and for making sure each World Tour progresses at a reasonable pace, but they also do very little to foster or preserve a sense of involvement in the fiction of the game. Ultimately, it only succeeds in taking the one-dimensional setlist approach and adding a little variability into the mix, but not in any way that's particularly memorable or significant to a band's identity or progression.

2. Its value to the player diminishes over time -- Aside from its intrinsic value as a band simulation, Band World Tour serves a number of overt, practical functions for the player: It's one of the most enjoyable ways to unlock songs on the disc, it provides a showcase of the game's many venues, and it's one of the best ways to unlock and try out additional gear for your band members. However, once a player has unlocked all the songs and played all the venues, the World Tour mode ceases to be as valuable an option for play. If a player or group of players wants to play together, it takes far less time to put together an open-ended quickplay session where flexible playlists can be built and enjoyed with less downtime. Likewise, a solo player who has finished the tour mode will find solo quickplay to be far more enjoyable either from a casual point of view, because of its ease of access, or from a hardcore fan's perspective, where high scores and star-count tracking matter.

3. It's cumbersome to play -- Although online play has made the Band World Tour mode far more accessible to players without friends nearby, it still requires a great deal more effort to set up and play. There are more menus to navigate, more instruments to set up, more space required and more schedules to collaborate on. While a lot of those problems are true of any activity that involves multiple people, the actual Rock Band interface doesn't do very much to help streamline players into a band setting. Whether drop-in/drop-out multiplayer would fix this problem without diminishing the group play experience is debatable, but as it stands it's a universally difficult task to coordinate on full-band play sessions.

4. It doesn't mesh with Rock Band's innate longevity -- Many Rock Band owners continue to play the hell out of Rock Band 2 nearly two years after its release. This is thanks to its extensive, varied and consistently updated DLC library as well as a few significant patches and other consistent support for the game from Harmonix, including the message of the day, Battle of the Bands events and the company's social media presence (podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). World Tour loses its luster quickly after completion, and people's bands are left untouched while solo and quickplay options become the preferred means of playing.

5. The game's fiction is underdeveloped -- Creating unique rockers and plotting your own course to superstardom is what Rock Band's World Tour is all about. But these characters never amount to much in terms of player investment, and there's no sense of community. For instance, when playing online with other people, everyone can bring their own rockers into the play session, but they're just puppets; they add nothing to your own game's fiction, or in other words, your interpretation of the story of your rocker. What if joining play sessions with bigger-name bands meant a chance at a big break for your player? What if leaving your band because of fundamental differences meant the launch of a solo act? What if these events were all capable of unfolding in a similarly nonlinear fashion as how World Tour currently functions but with the potential to actually craft a story that will stick with players years after they stop playing Rock Band, just like their favorite Fallout or Baldur's Gate characters do?

So, the fundamental question is: How can World Tour continue to appeal to players for months and years after the game's launch?

While it might sound improbable or impractical given the average 6-to-12 month span between new major releases in the music game genre, keeping players invested in the fiction of Rock Band will almost certainly significantly improve brand loyalty and awareness. Imagine if players felt as strongly about their Rock Band musicians or bands as they did about their heroes in Mass Effect or Dragon Age: If they invested the same kind of time and energy in crafting those characters just how they wanted, wouldn't they feel encouraged to check in on them from time to time? Wouldn't they want to keep helping that character grow, to see where their stories take them? And wouldn't they eagerly anticipate where they'd be able to take them in subsequent Rock Band games?

So...What could Rock Band 3 do to improve the World Tour mode?

There are a few fundamental concepts in an improved World Tour: connectedness, persistent growth and development, and flexibility.

Connectedness:

Being in a real-life band is all about communication. Members collaborate, plan gigs, weigh in on major decisions and all contribute in their own way. This group unity is not felt anywhere in the World Tour mode outside of actually playing songs. Band members only share one group metric -- fans -- and they split earnings equally into their own personal cash reserves for buying new accessories. The introduction of a joint band bank account would create an interesting dynamic where all players are responsible for managing funds. For example, what if earning a van actually cost in-game money? What if that van could break down, making it temporarily impossible for you to leave the city you're in, and it'd cost money to repair? What if licensing deals affected your band's reputation, and what if bands could break up? What if broken up bands could reunite on a reunion tour and rack up tons of money from their now-aged fans by playing big-venue shows? These are all just ideas, but persistent and distinctive avatars and bands are essential for fostering this sense of depth within the game's fiction.

Better Battle of the Bands integration -- Rather than just having Battle of the Bands events from quickplay show up in various venues around the world, these events should be pertinent to the player's band. Why not have a hometown reunion show pop up for the week of the band's one-year anniversary? Why not have summer music festivals (real or otherwise, in keeping with the game's wise precedent of avoiding real-world locations and events) that your band can play at to score legions of additional fans? And why not have a system in place to remind band members about these events? There could be a news ticker on the main screen, email or Facebook alerts, for example. Of course, I'm not sure what the Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo regulations are on that kind of external connectivity, but it seems like Facebook and Twitter connectivity is popping up in all kinds of games lately.

Persistent growth and development:

I can't say for sure,  but the impression I get from my experience playing the game is that the guiding philosophy behind World Tour has been to make playing Rock Band as an individual or a group more engrossing and more varied than a standard, down-the-list playthrough of a typical music game. At the same time, perhaps out of fear that the mode would be unappealing to all but the most hardcore of fans, the World Tour mode was a largely surface-level feature that didn't leave room for strategy or depth. In other words, it gave a pretty good illusion of building up a band from small-time to stardom, but how you got there was almost as linear a process as in a traditional music game.

While it's certainly a creative risk to add more complexity to a game whose success is largely due to its accessibility, I would argue that World Tour isn't the mode that most families and nontraditional gamers are going to flock to in the long term anyway. Quickplay is far easier to get into, it's more flexible to use, and there's no risk involved with negative reinforcement (losing fans, failing to win an optional event, etc.) In other words, World Tour is the perfect opportunity to build something much more enduring that will appeal to Harmonix's more devoted fans while also paving the way for plenty of newcomers to get sucked into the heretofore mostly untapped simulation and role-playing aspects of the game.

Band management -- While the existing concept of earning new vehicles and playing at venues around the world for increasing numbers of fans and amounts of money is solid, there is room for a lot more nuance and, ideally, unique events that help shape a band's legacy, which could result in players having more of a narrative to identify with. If band members were able to schedule their own tours, debate over playing a benefit show vs. a sponsored show (with each choice actually having consequences), players would feel more attached to their bands. They'd feel like they had more of a stake in how the game unfolded, and there would probably be a greater commitment in the long-term to the game as a result.

Persistent character and band growth -- Experience points aren't just the currency of dice-toting role-playing gamers anymore. Everything from Forza Motorsport to Call of Duty uses a numerical progression system to lend their experiences a sort of continuity and to help players identify with what makes their experience with the game distinct from their friends'. Why not bring that sort of experience tracking to Rock Band? What if musicians and bands could both gain experience from playing shows, and what if leveling up unlocked specific talents or skills for each musician? And furthermore, what if a musician gained better skills the more they play a certain instrument? That could encourage players to play more songs while also trying out different instruments, which could help push players outside of their comfort zones -- but in a good way. So many of my friends are too embarrassed to sing in Rock Band, but with a little persuasion from the game, that might be a different story.

Flexibility:

Practically speaking, the times when all four band members can get together are probably few and far between. Some potential solutions that would preserve the value of the core band and the persistence of its members while allowing for flexibility of play include:

Ability for members of other bands to sub in -- Members of other bands can freely join other bands to play for a session. This needs to be done efficiently, which means porting a profile to the console in use is impractical. Since Rock Band will continue to be a part of the EA Partners program thanks to a renewed publishing deal, couldn't logging into an EA account allow for a quick download of a character onto another console? And couldn't that infrastructure track which players are doing what at any given time, and store those statistics centrally?

Make band-level decisions while away from the game console -- With online integration through a web interface or Facebook or some other networking tool, band members could vote on major decisions, book gigs where all four members are playing together, create setlists for upcoming shows, discuss logo designs, and so forth. There's so much potential for people to collaborate and build these fascinating band identities that can be shared with other players and the Rock Band community at large, and when those images and identities can be exported, it stands to reason that people will want to share that information with friends. And what better way to promote a product than to have users who actively want to share their experiences with friends and family?

What should stay the same?

Failing -- Progression should hinge on being able to successfully pass songs as a group. While no-fail mode being constantly activated is a great idea on easy as in The Beatles: Rock Band, on higher difficulties, or perhaps once the band has passed a major milestone, no-fail should be disabled for progression. Relative flexibility with band members -- So let's say your drummer thinks her avatar sucks. Fine -- she can change whatever she wants about the avatar while keeping persistent accomplishments/stats/etc. Some of the most famous rock stars are constantly reinventing themselves, after all.

Conclusion

With two years between iterations, Rock Band 3 has the potential for benefiting from a longer development cycle and from the lessons learned in Harmonix's band-specific games. While I'm certain just about anybody will find something they disagree with above, I feel like I've spent enough time with the game -- and I feel passionately enough about the series -- to be able to draw up some conjectures about what direction the Rock Band games should take next. If you've got anything you'd like to add or anything you disagree with, feel free to sound off in the comments section.